I’ve spent my adult life reducing my ecological footprint, struggling with possible next steps because they are, frankly, enormous. Giving up air travel, for instance. Visiting my aged parents in Florida and accessing the wilderness in the southwest are particularly appealing. [I can, and do, purchase carbon offsets for such travel – though offsets are an admitted distant second to actually hanging up my wings [http://www.offsetters.ca/education/calculators/flight-emissions-calculator; http://www.offsetters.ca/education/buy-offsets]].
I’ve spent a lot of energy and time wondering about this huge speed bump: why won’t I take these next steps forward in reducing my own footprint?
My answer requires me to step back and look at the ecological footprint of the masses. Us. Groups of humans, whose overall footprint equals the number of humans multiplied by the average impact per human. Pretty simple math: we can reduce a group’s footprint by decreasing the impact per human and by managing the number of humans.
Let’s look at how we’re doing with housing, the arena in which I’ve spent my entire career. And, for simplicity, let’s look at my own lifespan, having been born in 1951.
Janelle Orsi and Emily Doskow provide this data in The Sharing Solution:
Average home size in the U.S.
1950: just under 1,000 square feet [sf]
2008: approximately 2,500 sf
Average number of people living in a house
1940 = 3.7 people
2009 = 2.6 people
So the average square footage per person becomes:
1940-1950 era = 270 sf/person
2008-2009 = 960 sf/person
This represents a 355% increase
U.S. population during this same period:
1950: 152.3 million
2014: 318.9 million
This represents a 209% increase
Roughly speaking, housing square footage during my own lifetime has increased about 700% [twice as many humans each living in three and a half times as much space].
Granted, some of us are spending a considerable amount of time, energy and dough to reduce the ecological footprint of our own living space…. our efficiency. No doubt these efforts, along with more aggressive energy codes, have reduced the ecological footprint of new square footage. Renewable energy, for example, is surging forward [consider watching Al Gore’s recent TED Talk, sharing his optimism for our recent strides with renewables: https://www.ted.com/talks/al_gore_the_case_for_optimism_on_climate_change].
How, then, are we doing on the population side of the equation? Isn’t our population size sufficient already? Professor Albert Bartlett [former Professor Emeritus in Physics at University of Colorado] asked this:
“Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to
global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by
further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?”
His aggressive answer — “NO!” — is fundamental to his thesis that “… the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” [If you’ve never heard or read Prof. Bartlett’s profound speech about this exponential function, you owe it to yourself to make it so. His talk is amidst the most important lessons I’ve learned since childhood. Watch it here: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/arithmetic-population-and-energy-lecture/ or read it here: http://www.albartlett.org/presentations/arithmetic_population_energy_transcript_english.html]
Hence my thesis here: efficiency without sufficiency is insufficient. It seems perfectly clear to me that if we don’t control our numbers, population growth will continue to exceed improvements in each person’s efficiency. We’ll continue to slide…
Population remains a topic our culture, our world, avoids like the plague. From my perspective overpopulation is the plague. I join Martin Luther King Jr. when he said,
“Unlike the plagues of the dark ages, or contemporary diseases which we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is solvable with means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of the billions who are its victims.”
Yes, I rationalize: until I see humanity grasp, and act upon, the need to control our population – to call it, already, more than sufficient – I find myself unwilling to take further steps towards decreasing my own ecological footprint. My personal sacrifice is enough, me thinks. I’ve already decreased it way far below the norm and now I need to see others… gobs of others…step up to the plate.
We can’t grow on like this.